Major-General Fitzhugh Lee simply and methodically described why the Southern soldier fought in 1861, and under what privations and suffering these Americans fought outnumbered by 5 to 1 odds for four years — and came close to success. He sums up why the war and reasons for it will not go away. He prophesied that the time would come when the world would recognize that the failure of the Confederacy was a great misfortune to humanity.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
The Confederate Soldier in the Civil War
“An impartial study of the early history of the American republic from the period of a band of patriots, following on the wave of Washington’s sword, transferred power from king to people, will demonstrate that when Colonies were transformed into States, the latter delegated, in a written Constitution, the powers to be conferred on the United States, but all powers not so delegated were reserved to the States themselves, because they had never parted from them. Hence, sovereign power belonged to a State, while only derivative, and not primitive, power was possessed by the general government.
The States did not confer upon the Government they were then forming a right to coerce one of their number for any purpose, for it is not natural that the creator should create either executive, judicial or legislative authority anywhere which should be potent to destroy its life or diminish or alter the power it had reserved for its own purposes. A State speaks through its representative bodies, and the majority of delegates in a convention direct its course.
The people of the original thirteen States believed in State sovereignty, and Pennsylvania and the New England States are upon record as primarily holding such opinions. The Southern people were educated in the belief that the allegiance of the citizen was first due to his State, and that in any conflict between his Commonwealth and the United States, or other country, his place was at her side — at her feet he should kneel and at her foe his gun should be pointed.
This is the only explanation of the great and enthusiastic response by the masses of the people to the actions of their State Conventions, when they decided their States should no longer be members of the Federal Union, but, resuming their original independence, be free afterward to make such other alliances they might deem best to protect their rights and promote their growth and glory.
The Southern masses were the private soldiers of the armies; they may not have understood all the public questions involved, or the gravity of secession, or the importance of pending issues as thoroughly as the statesmen of the period, but they must have been thoroughly impressed in a conscious manner with the right of secession and with a fidelity and loyalty to the commands of their respective States.
It has been said that the man is under no circumstances so independent as he is when the next step is for life or death. The men who were to be enrolled as the soldiers of the new Confederacy of States, to battle for its existence, knew they were taking a step which might bring to them a hostile bullet and a soldier’s grave.
The existence of the slightest doubt as to the justice of the course of their States, or the presence of the smallest suspicion that their bayonets would glisten with treason, would have surely brought that independence of action spoken of, against which the pleading eloquence of their leaders would recoil as the waters are dashed back from a great rock.
No earthly mandate can compel men to leave their firesides, families and friends, and embrace death with rapture, unless their God-given consciences stamp with approval the motives which control their conduct.
With a free, fair and honest ballot, undisturbed by extraneous influences, and untouched by the modern methods of bribery and corruption, the masses of the people, from which came the unbroken ranks of gallant men, voted with practical unanimity to ratify the decision of their State Conventions. The movement to change the map of North America and make two republics grow where only one grew before, was enthusiastically received by the great body of the Southern people.
When I see the battle-scarred soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy, with uncovered head and profoundest reverence I bow before those dauntless heroes, feeling that if the greatest suffering with the least reward is worthy of the highest honor, these deserve to stand shoulder to shoulder with their greatest army commanders in the brotherhood of glory.
It was a wonderful exhibition of courage, constancy, and suffering, which no disaster could diminish, no defeat darken. The soldiers went to battle from a sense of duty, and were not lured into the ranks by bounties or kept there by the hope of pension. The records show 600,000 Southern men were enlisted during the whole war, while 2,700,000 represent the total enlistments of their opponents during the same period.
“It would be difficult to convince the world,” General Lee would often say, “of the numerical superiority of our opponents.” And yet, for four years success trembled in the balance, though fate denied the Confederate soldiers the final victory, it “clothed them with glorious immortality.”
There was no “passion-swept mob rising in mad rebellion against constituted authority,” but armies whose ranks were filled by men whose convictions were honest, and whose loyalty to the Southern cause was without fear and without reproach — men who remained faithful to military duty in the conflict between fidelity to the Confederate banners or adherence to the trust assumed in the marriage vow, who resisted the pressures of letters from home, and whose heart-strings were breaking from the sad tale of starvation and despair at the family homestead.
As the hostile invasion swept over more territory the more frequent the appeals came, marked by the pathos and power which agony inspires, until at last the long silence told the soldier his home was within his enemies’ lines, and the fate of his family was concealed from his view.
Under such conditions the private soldier of the South promptly fell into line. If saved from the dangers of the contest, his reward was the commendation of his immediate commanding officers and the conscientiousness of duty faithfully performed. If drowned amid the hail of shot and shell, his hastily buried body filled a nameless grave, without military honors and without religious ceremonies.
No pages of history recounted in lofty language his courage on the field or his devotion to his country, or described how, like a soldier, he fell in the forefront of battle. His battle picture, ever near the flashing of the guns, should be framed in the memory of all who admire true heroism, whether found at the cannon’s mouth, or in the blade of the cavalry, or along the blazing barrels of the infantry.
There he stood with the old, torn slouch hat, the bright eye, the cheek colored by exposure and painted by excitement, the face stained with powder, with jacket rent, trousers torn and the blanket in shreds, printing in the dust of battle the tracks of his shoeless feet. No monument can be built high enough to commemorate the memory of a typical representative private soldier of the South.
Very truly yours,
(The Confederate Soldier in the Civil War, Major-General Fitzhugh Lee, Ben La Bree, 1895, excerpts, pp. 7-8)